10 Cruise Line Secrets and Money-Saving Tips

When it comes to planning a cruise, there’s a wealth of information out there ready to help you get the most out of your vacation. The problem is that the info isn’t necessarily stuff that anyone — including the line on which you’re planning to sail — is going to tell you. It’s not necessarily that they’re trying to keep things from you or any other passenger. Instead, it’s that — short of handing you a 200-page guidebook — there’s simply too much to process.

Fortunately, you’ve got us, and we’ve been sailing for long enough to know exactly the tidbits to pass on. Some will help you save money, others will help you save time. And while all of our helpful hints won’t be true for every cruise line, they’ll give you a place to start. Trust us, once you’ve got a few cruises under your belt, you’ll have your own set of tips to pass on to your friends and family!

So without further ado, here are 10 of the valuable hints we’ve picked up over the years.

1. You can save money by letting the cruise line pick your cabin.

If you’ve spent much time researching cruises online, you’ve likely come across lots of articles, forums, or social media groups where people talk about the best cabin locations. Picking where your stateroom will be on the ship is very important to some. Others, however, are willing to settle for a stateroom in a less desirable location if it means they can save a little (and sometimes even a lot) of cash.

If you fall into the latter category, you may want to consider booking what’s usually referred to as a “guarantee” or “sailaway” cabin This means that you get to choose the category (interior, balcony, etc.), but the cruise line will ultimately decide which exact cabin you wind up in.

There are, of course, downsides to this option. For one thing, you may not find out exactly which stateroom you’ll be in until a few days before the ship sails. And there’s a good chance you’ll wind up in a less-than-ideal location, such as beneath a noisy venue. The upside? You’ll definitely save some money. And occasionally, folks who book guarantee or sailaway staterooms wind up in a better stateroom than they would have otherwise. It doesn’t happen often, but it does sometimes happen!

balcony stateroom

2. Snacks at the café are often free.

It’s no secret that there’s plenty of free food on board ships. But what many don’t realize is that even in venues where you have to pay for some items, others are free. For example, pretty much every cruise ship has a café where you can purchase specialty coffees, teas and other delectable drinks. Often, however, these spots often also feature various treats such as pastries or sandwiches which are completely free. So if you’re in the mood for a mid-afternoon pastry on your way past the café, stop by and get one. No one will judge you.

javablue cafe mardi gras carnival cruise
JavaBlue Café on Carnival’s Mardi Gras

3. You may be able to get into sold-out theater shows.

Cruise lines usually recommend that you make a reservation for popular shows in advance. But if you go to do so a few weeks before your sailing and find out that the event is listed as “sold out,” don’t despair, all hope is not lost. Often, cruise lines only allow a certain percentage of seats to be booked in advance. Additional reservations are then available for booking once you board. The trick? Make sure you try and snag one of those as soon as you get on the ship!

If you still weren’t able to snag a reservation once on the ship and you’re really dying to see that show, head to the theater shortly before showtime. You’d be surprised how many people don’t show up for various reasons. Maybe they’re on a winning streak in the casino, or they forgot because they met new friends at a bar. In any case, shortly before showtime, crew members will often allow those who don’t have reservations into the theater to fill the empty seats.

Celebrity Edge Return sailing

4. You can (usually) order as much as you want in the main dining room.

On dry land, we tend to think of a meal as an appetizer, entrée and dessert. But in the main dining room, it’s pretty much anything goes! If you see two appealing entrées on the menu, feel free to order both. If you don’t think you can eat both, ask your server if they can give you half portions of each. This sounds crazy to non-cruisers — after all, this would never fly at a land-based restaurant —  but trust me, it’s pretty common on ships and your request can usually be accommodated. The inclusive aspect of the main dining room is also fun because it allows you to try things you wouldn’t normally eat without feeling like you’ve wasted money if you don’t like it.

Yes, a few lines have experimented with various types of limitations in the main dining room — including charging for additional items — but those tests have generally failed pretty miserably. 

One piece of advice to be a conscious cruiser though — don’t take advantage of this benefit. Don’t order four desserts for yourself knowing full well you won’t eat even a third of what’s placed in front of you. If you really feel the need to try the entire dessert menu, consider creating your own little buffet with your group and sharing all of the dishes. The less food you can waste, the better.

rotterdam main dining room
The main dining room on Holland America’s Rotterdam

5. The ship will provide seasickness medication.

If you wake up queasy on a sea day, believe me, you’re not alone. Whether the seas are perfectly calm or the ship is on the edge of a storm, some people are more prone to seasickness than others. 

If you didn’t think to bring seasickness medication or other solutions — or didn’t think you’d need it — don’t worry. You won’t have to spend the day in bed or walking around looking a little green. Head down to the ship’s infirmary and ask for some dramamine; they’ll give it to you for free.


6. You’ll get spa discounts on port days.

On port days, most passengers spend the day exploring that day’s destination. This means that life on board slows way down. Some venues will close entirely until everyone’s back on board the ship, whereas others — especially ones which bring in money for the cruise line — will work to get the attention of those who decided not to disembark.

On nearly every line, you’ll find that the spa offers discounts on everything from treatments to day passes. So if you’re really wanting a spa treatment during your cruise and can spare some time on one of your itinerary’s port days, consider booking your treatment then. Note that you probably won’t be able to book with these deals before your cruise — you’ll either have to wait until you first get onboard or until the day-of.

carnival horizon spa massage
(Photo courtesy of Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

7. You can bring your own alcohol onboard.

We’ve all heard the stories about folks who have their luggage sent to the naughty room because they’re attempting to smuggle booze on board. What you may not realize is that most lines will actually allow you to bring a bit of booze… but there are rules as to what and how much you’re allowed. 

Most cruise lines will allow each passenger (or cabin) to bring two bottles of wine or champagne from home. Some, such as Disney Cruise Line, even allow guests to bring a pack of beer. This will save you money if you’d like to enjoy wine on your balcony or want to crack open a bottle of champagne for a special occasion. 

Just remember that if you’d like to open your bottle at dinner in one of the ship’s restaurants, they’ll likely charge you a corkage fee. (Some lines will charge a corkage fee at the time of boarding, whether or not you intend to have them open the bottles for you.) If you truly want to save money by bringing your own wine or champagne, we recommend just pouring it in your cabin yourself. You can request that your steward bring you a bucket of ice to keep it cold.

Also as a note, cruise lines generally do not allow guests to bring any of their own hard liquor onboard. And if you buy a bottle in one of the ship’s shops — or while in port — it will be kept for you until debarkation day.

wine bottles
(Photo by Christopher Ison)

8. You may be able to eat in specialty restaurants at lunchtime for a discount/free.

Many cruisers don’t know — and the cruise lines don’t often advertise ahead of time — that some specialty restaurants offer lunch for free, or for a lesser fee than at dinnertime. Obviously this won’t be the case on every cruise line or even every ship, especially since many specialty venues simply close up shop where breakfast and lunch are concerned.

That said, Holland America’s Pinnacle Grill steakhouse offers a special lunch menu that costs only $15 per person. Royal Caribbean’s The Mason Jar restaurant on Wonder of the Seas has brunch for $25 per person, vs. the $40 it costs for dinner.

Carnival Cruise Line’s JiJi Asian Kitchen and Cucina Del Capitano each have free lunchtime menus. Sure, they’re not the same menus as you’d find at dinner, but they’re both great, customizable options that allow you to eat something besides the buffet or poolside quick-service fare for lunch.

jiji asian kitchen lunch
Carnival Sunshine guests await lunch in JiJi Asian Kitchen (Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line)

9. You can use the showers in the spa without needing a pass.

If you’ve got four people in your cabin all vying for the bathroom at the same time in the morning, consider this helpful tip: Most cruise ships have showers you can use for free in the fitness center or spa locker room, regardless of whether you have a pass to the spa or not.

Sure, a lot of cruisers will balk at the idea of using a public shower when you have one in your cabin, but there are two good reasons some passengers love to take advantage of them in the morning. The first we already touched on: It’s a more efficient way of getting ready if it’s a port day and you have several people in one cabin. The second is due to the size of the cabin’s shower. Many people find that the cabin’s shower is woefully too small to move around sufficiently, and the ones in the spa/fitness center are notably larger.

If you think you might want to use the ship’s public showers, head to the spa or fitness center ahead of time to scope them out and see what you think.

As an added bonus, check to see if any other amenities might be available to you without a thermal suite pass to the spa. Sometimes the locker room also includes a sauna, which you won’t need to pay to use.

cloud 9 spa shower
Shower space in Carnival’s Cloud 9 Spa

10. Package deals may not actually be great deals.

Considering purchasing a beverage or specialty dining package for your next cruise? If you’re on a budget, make sure you actually do the math to see if it’ll be a good deal for you.

If none of the specialty restaurants on board sound especially appealing except one, or you’re always more than satisfied in the main dining room for dinner, spending the extra cash for a specialty dining package may not be best for you. 

With the drink packages, it’s even more important to do some calculations because this is often the most expensive package passengers will buy on a cruise. Find out what the average cost of a beer, glass of wine, or cocktail is on your ship and figure out if you’re likely to come out on top if you purchase that drinks package. Keep in mind that some days will be port days, and you’ll likely either drink a lot less — or be drinking in port and your package won’t apply there anyway.

One thing that does often incentivize people to purchase a beverage package — even if there are a lot of port days — is the fact that many include more than alcohol. Some include things like soda, specialty coffee, energy drinks and bottled water. For many cruisers these additions makes the package more than worth it, but you need to figure out whether that will be true for you. Remember, every cruiser is different and you may save a lot of money by paying for drinks on an individual basis.

There are other packages that can be bought for cruises, on everything from spa treatments and photos to shore excursions and flights added into your fare. The same thing applies to all of them: before you just purchase without much of a thought, think about how much you’ll actually utilize them and break down the cost… THEN make your decision.

carnival cruise cheers package

READ NEXT: Your Guide to Dining on the World’s Biggest Ship

Pin it!

10 secrets cruise lines don't usually tell you